By Scott Lindholm-
(CBS) My first piece previewing the 2014 Cubs analyzed their financial status. This one reviews the Cubs’ offense, while the next will be on their pitching.
Beginning at catcher, the platoon of Dioner Navarro and Welington Castillo was effective enough in 2013. Navarro signed with the Blue Jays and for 2014, the Cubs will find someone to back up Castillo. Someone like, well, I just looked at a list, and Koyie Hill is the best player on it. The Cubs had 23 catchers in the minors in 2013, with the closest thing to a prospect being Wilson Contreras at Kane County, suggesting no solution on the horizon in the near term.
Obviously the Cubs are set at first and shortstop with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro signed to long-term deals, Rizzo through 2019 for around $41 million with options through 2021 and Castro for around $60 million through 2019 with an option for 2020. It is far too early to call these contracts busts, and it won’t be difficult for either Rizzo or Castro to live up to those contracts. FanGraphs assigns a value of around $5 million per WAR (wins above replacement) point, meaning Rizzo needs to deliver around eight points of WAR through 2019 and Castro 12. This is easily obtainable, and if Rizzo and Castro develop the way Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer assume they will, these contracts will be bargains. Absent drastic events, these two are written in ink on the lineup card.
Darwin Barney will begin the year at second, but the question is for how long? There is a false notion a player can deliver as much value with his glove as with his bat, and in 2013 Barney proved emphatically this is not the case. FanGraphs estimates he saved around 15 runs with his fielding — and cost around 28 with his hitting. One of the best-fielding second basemen delivered twice as much pain with his bat as value with his glove. There are times this can be overlooked, particularly on teams loaded with offensive talent at the other positions, which doesn’t describe the Cubs. How bad was Barney? For all players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2013, he was 271st out of 276 in weighted on-base average and 273rd in runs created plus. Jeff Keppinger ranked better in these categories (264th and 266th, respectively), which should be all that is necessary to know in assessing Barney’s year.
There are alternatives. The Cubs can wait until June and bring up Arismendy Alcantara, but he’s only 22 and another year at Tennessee and another year of club control might be better. They can wait a year or so for Javier Baez to mature and improve. The Cubs will be in no hurry to rush him this year and only have to look back to the last time they hurried along a shortstop when they weren’t fielding a competitive team. Depending on Baez’s development, he could facilitate moving Castro either to second or another team. Or, if Castro shows that 2013 was a fluke and demonstrates improvement at the plate and in the field, it might force Baez to second. Either way, ask not for whom the bell tolls, Darwin Barney — it’s not a matter of if, but when.
Third base will be answered on Kris Bryant‘s schedule. If he develops well at Tennessee this year, he could be on the Cubs by the end of 2014. He’s only 22, and the Cubs gain nothing by rushing his development and starting his arbitration clock. It would be different if the Cubs were poised for success, and in the unlikely event the they are competitive this year, he could be brought up. But the Cubs weren’t hurt by Luis Valbuena in 2013. Just reviewing the infield shows how Epstein/Hoyer have changed things in their two years in Chicago, as the Cubs have legitimate prospects at every infield position. Will they all pan out? Who knows, but at this point in their development there’s far more upside than down, a far cry from the Cubs farm system of even three years ago.
There is some power in the infield but not much in the outfield, which will definitely be a problem this year. They re-signed Nate Schierholtz, who had a solid 2013, and also have Ryan Sweeney and Junior Lake, who were decent but are little more than nice fourth outfielders. Jorge Soler and Albert Almora will not be part of 2014. Soler was injured for most of 2013, and Almora is only 19. The outfield free agent list is just as bad as its counterpart at catcher.
Using FanGraphs’ WAR values, in 2013 the Cubs ranked 21st on offense, 20th in starting pitching, 29th in relief pitching and sixth in defense (by UZR/150). I’ll discuss the pitching in my next post, but for the Cubs to improve they’ll have to make dramatic improvements on offense, which is unlikely in 2014 as the players most likely to help will be in the minors.
Returns to form by Castro and Rizzo can give a boost, but unless Schierholtz can maintain his production, they’ll be the only power producers in the lineup, and in Castro’s case that’s a stretch. The Cubs are clearly pointing toward 2015, since they did absolutely nothing to plug glaring holes at catcher and outfield, but they stayed consistent to the method Epstein/Hoyer promised upon their arrival — rebuild the farm system, strengthen international player acquisition and don’t spend big money on free agents who are past their prime.
All signs point to a year not much different than the past two, but with one important difference — there is hope on the horizon. I mentioned six minor league players who could be making significant contributions by 2015, and when was the last time the Cubs could say that? Augment that with prudent free agent signings and the future looks bright for the Cubs, and sooner rather than later.
It’s not guaranteed — nothing in baseball is. But it’s a plan that’s worked for St. Louis and Tampa Bay with Kansas City poised to join them — develop talent, add select free agents and see what happens. It could very well work for the Cubs.
Just not in 2014.
Scott Lindholm is a columnist for CBSChicago.com and 670TheScore.com and frequent contributor to The Boers and Bernstein Show, known affectionately as Scott from Davenport. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.